Ron Reagan's talk show -- The son of the former president talks about his ambitious new project

By Frank Spotnitz
August 30, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

The son of the former leader of the Free World rushes to his front door wearing only a pair of shorts. ”We’re having an emergency,” Ron Reagan says. But it quickly becomes clear that this is something less than an international incident. ”The pilot light’s gone out on the stove,” he explains. ”I’ve got to relight it before we blow the place up.” Reagan resolves the crisis, restoring the flame with a single match.

With equal aplomb, Reagan has been starting fires of a different sort five nights a week on The Ron Reagan Show (syndicated to more than 100 stations), a surprise critical hit in a month when nothing much usually happens on TV. Though ratings since the Aug. 12 debut have been merely decent, Reagan’s nimble wit and amiable skewering of guests on topics from AIDS to political comedy have reinvigorated a format that seemed tapped out by Phil, Geraldo, Oprah, Joan, and Sally Jessy. The sparks on Reagan have less to do with sensational topics than with the clash of ideas. For example:

In an episode about AIDS, an angry man in the audience accused Reagan of being a ”liar” for denying rumors he was gay. ”Do you know me?” Reagan snapped back. ”Have we ever met? Then where do you get off calling me a liar?” When the man then criticized Reagan for not pressuring his father to do more about AIDS, the ex-President’s son said he’d talked to his father ”plenty, but how would you know that?” As his accuser stammered out an ”I don’t know,” Reagan retorted, ”Well, then, what are you talking about? Come on, you don’t know anything. You don’t know anything.”

In a discussion about the marketing of athletes, Reagan took Nike spokeswoman Liz Dolan to task because the company kept baseball star Dwight Gooden as a spokesman after his much-publicized cocaine troubles but won’t touch athletes who might have used steroids. ”What’s the distinction then?” he asked. ”Do a little nose candy, it’s okay, but try steroids and you’re out?”

After religious leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet claimed a list of successful prophesies in the ’80s, Reagan dismissed them as ”a pretty even bet for any decade this century.” When she defended her large Montana home by saying it belongs to every member of her church, he shot back, ”That’s a pretty cute answer, but that doesn’t satisfy the IRS.”

From its MTV-style title sequence (a rapid-fire assault of pop-culture icons, set to the Beatles’ ”A Day in the Life”) to its young, quick-witted host, The Ron Reagan Show is an Oprah that baby boomers don’t need to feel ashamed of watching.

After a life of reflected fame (and some derision), Reagan, 33, is finally meriting serious attention of his own. ”There’s been this presumption of stupidity,” he says of his image, ”that I’m this kind of airhead who’s trading on his name.” Now having had Dad in the White House is part of the fun. In the show about political comedy, Saturday Night Live‘s A. Whitney Brown delighted in needling Reagan, noting that political dissent was unpopular in the early ’80s, ”when, I guess, there was a very popular President.” The host took it with a smile.

In addition to the critics, good notices have come from conservative columnist and talk show host William F. Buckley Jr. (who sent a note saying, ”You were great, but I can’t say the same for your guests”) and from Reagan’s parents, who are nonetheless somewhat ”confused” — Ron’s term — by the show’s content. ”The gay show was probably a little bizarre to them, and some of the issues that touch on race and class might leave them wondering what the hell is going on,” Reagan admits. ”It’s not the type of discussion they toss around the dinner table.” Otherwise, he says, the former First Couple approve of their son’s latest endeavor. ”They’re glad I’ve got a job — I’m not on the street,” he adds with a laugh.

Indeed, Reagan has gone through a lot of career changes since dropping out of Yale a decade ago, from dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, to magazine writer, to local TV reporter, to correspondent on ABC’s Good Morning America. Perhaps the most notorious entry on his résumé was a 1986 Saturday Night Live appearance in which he pranced around in his underwear in a parody of the movie Risky Business. Yet it was another career shift — cohosting with Christina Ferrare a 1989 pilot for a daytime talk show called Studio 33, Hollywood — that led to the new program. Reagan and executive producer Kevin Bright wanted, and got, a nighttime version of Donahue or Geraldo, with serious discussions of topics in the news.

Reagan is briefed before each show, but he’s on his own once the tape starts rolling, trading jabs with the guests and even with the audience, as he demonstrated in facing down his acccuser during the AIDS discussion. ”It’s not my job to defend my father — I don’t really get too upset with that,” Reagan says later. ”What really upset me with that guy was being called a liar. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a liar. And then he starts off with this ‘You never this, you never that, with your father’ — how the f— does he know?” On that show, Reagan also addressed the rumors that he is a homosexual by criticizing journalist Michelangelo Signorile and playwright Larry Kramer for ”outing,” or publicly alleging that well-known people are gay. ”If somebody isn’t gay,” Reagan says, ”they’re left in the scientifically untenable position of having to prove a negative. Larry Kramer actually said (about me), ‘He’ll have to prove to me that he’s not gay.’ Well, tell me how, Larry. How exactly would I do that? I can’t.”

Reagan and his wife, Doria, have been married 11 years — a fact, he says, that makes the accusation particularly irksome. ”Being called gay is not a pejorative — he might as well have said I had black curly hair,” Reagan says. ”But when you’re outing somebody and the implication is that they’re a closet homosexual, you’re saying a lot more than that they’re gay. You’re saying that they live the lie.”

The topic apparently pains Reagan all the more because he leads a surprisingly private life for the son of such an enormously public couple. He and Doria, who is studying for her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, have lived in the same small but crisply decorated apartment in Westwood for seven years. Reagan carefully tends a small garden on the back patio, where free rein is given to a family of 10 turtles. A cat roams the house, and two parakeets stand guard by the phone. He says he and Doria spend most evenings at home, reading or listening to music that runs from Gregorian chant and Ravi Shankar to Bob Mould.

Even if his new show proves successful, Reagan says, a bit unexpectedly, ”I think eventually I’ll wind up writing again. Temperamentally and by preference, I think that’s what I’d really like to do. This is fun. It pays the rent, it puts Doria through graduate school, and I think we’re doing a good show. But I couldn’t see doing it for as long as Johnny did. Television is just too weird.”